Well I had been in New Zealand almost 2 week before waking up on New Year's Day with tremendous anticipation. I was psyched and ready for a four hour Albatross Encounter out of the famous seabirding location of Kaikoura.
Although this was a family vacation mostly centred around visiting friends I had managed a few birding adventures with the best find being a Black Stilt in a small pond with a hybrid stilt and a small flock of Pied Stilts not far from Twizel. According to one of the local conservation officers the Black Stilt is not doing well despite intensive management at great cost for the last decade. He is predicting it will be extinct in the wild in the next decade.
Black Stilt and Black X Pied Stilt hybrid near Twizel, NZ
I had been anticipating the pelagic out of Kaikoura for many months. The beauty of this famous location is the albatrosses feed very close to shore and are present in good numbers and can be seen very well and photographed to your hearts content all within sight of land.
One of the reasons Kaikoura is so hospitable for such a large number of seabirds is the presence of a deepwater trench close to shore and upwellings of cold nutrient rich water. Along with albatrosses the endemic Hutton’s Shearwaters breed in the nearby mountains and a rich variety of other pelagic species use the area as a feeding ground.
New Zealand showing location of Kaikoura on South Island
Albatross Encounters is the primary provider of pelagic birding tours out of Kaikoura. They run daily tours throughout the year and can be chartered for group tours. The skipper Gary Melville is quite knowledgable and helpful. We arrived at 0830 and they were calling for a bit of a choppy sea and advised taking sea sickness precautions. Well having had my fair share of encounters with motion sickness I didn’t need any convincing. There were 7 other members of the party and all except one member decided to listen to my advice and take a precautionary anti-seasickness tablet. My wife’s friend Brad assured me that he had been out in lots of boats and never got sea sick. Famous last words.
Northern Giant Petrel, off Kaikoura
Well we weren’t more than a couple minutes off shore when the first Northern Giant Petrels started swooping in behind the boat. Several Hutton’s Shearwaters could be seen a ways away but seemed to have little interest in the boat. Moments later a pristine Shy Albatross joined in with the Giant Petrels and then a White-chinned Petrel joined the entourage. It wasn’t long before a one of the big boys a New Zealand Albatross came up the stern. This all occurred within 10-15 minutes of leaving the dock.
New Zealand(Gibson’s) Albatross
About 20 minutes off shore the captain anchored up and dropped off a block of chum. Now the Albatross parade really started. Several Salvin’s Albatrosses wheeled in to join there Shy cousins. Both Northern and Southern Royal Albatrosses joined the large number of New Zealand Albatrosses bickering over the chum. A single immature Black-browed Albatross rounded off the show.
Salvin’s Albatrosses off Kaikoura
The taxonomy of the Shy/Salvin’s Albatross complex is certainly in evolution with anywhere from one to four species being recognized depending on the authority. The three species concept is used in Onley & Scofield’s - Albatrosses,Petrels & Shearwaters of the World recognizing Shy( White-capped) Albatross Thalassarche cauta with its two subspecies T.c.cauta the nominate subsp. from Tasmania/Australia and T.c. steadi the subsp. from New Zealand, along with the monotypic Salvin’s Albatross T. salvini and Chatham Island Albatross T.c.erimita.
Both Shy and Salvin’s Albatosses are common off Kaikoura so it is a great opportunity to study there differences. The Shy Albatross is noticeably bigger than Salvin’s (useful when able to compare, not useful for single bird) and it has a mostly white head and neck with alight grey wash on the face. The bill is the best differentiating feature being grey with a yellow tip. Salvin’s Albatross typically has more extensive grey on the head and neck (very variable feature) and the bill is greyish to yellowish with dark overlay and has a distinctive dark tip to the lower mandible.
Shy Albatross-showing grey bill with yellow tip
Salvin’s Albatross showing yellowish bill with black tip to lower mandible
Shy Albatross in flight
Salvin’s Albatross in flight
Shy Albatross at rest
Salvin’s Albatross at rest
Immature birds in this complex can be significantly more challenging. A great article by Steve Howell looking at some of the identification issues in immatures of this group can be found in Neotropical Birds .
Near adult Shy Albatross showing residual black tip to bill
Royal Albatrosses are the largest of all seabirds with wingspans up to 3.5 meters. THey have recently been divided into two species. The Northern Royal Albatross Diomeda sanfordi which primarily nests in the Chatham Islands off New Zealand with a well known colony on the mainland os the South Island at Taiaroa Head. The Southern Royal Albatross Diomeda epomophora breeds primarily on Campbell Island.
If seen well Royal Albatrosses can be distinguished from other great albatrosses by having a thin black line along the cutting edge of the bill (Amsterdam Albatrosses have this as well but should be easily distinguished based on plumage).
Royal Albatross showing thin black line along cutting edge of bill
Identification of Royal Albatrosses to species is summed up in Onley & Scofield as follows ‘’a royal albatross with white on the upperwing is a Southern”. They go on to say ‘’ birds with dark spots on crown or dark tail feathers are likely to be Northern’s”. Many royals are not distinguishable to species in the field.
Northern Royal Albatross - note black cutting edge of bill, entirely black upperwings with dark spots on crown and tail
Royal Albatross- Northern or Southern?
Southern Royal Albatross - note white on upperwing proximally
The vast majority of the Royals we saw in Kaikoura were likely Northerns having an entirely black upperwing. We saw only one definitive Southern Royal and unfortunately I didn’t manage to get any flight shots of the bird.
The other group of great albatrosses the “Wanderers” are well represented at Kaikoura. The taxonomy of this group is quite controversial with identification to individual taxon being much complicated by a highly complex and variable sequence of plumage progression from juvenile to adult birds rivalled in the bird world only by the Herring Gull complex. The original one species concept has evolved to a four (Snowy, New Zealand, Tristan & Amsterdam Island Albatrosses) species concept with a minority of authorities further dividing New Zealand Albatross into Gibson’s & Antipodean Albatrosses considered by many as subspecies of the New Zealand Albatross.
The New Zealand Albatross is common in Kaikoura with the majority of birds likely being Gibson’s. Snowy Albatross are seen fairly regularly and we had a possible candidate but despite seeming a bit larger than its compatriots the plumage was not definitive so it is best left as Wanderer sp. (which may often be the case in this complex and poorly understood group).
New Zealand Albatrosses -all in range of subsp. gibsoni
New Zealand Albatross - darker plumage within range of both subsp. gibsoni and antopodensis
“Wandering” Albatross plumage within range of both Snowy & New Zealand (ssp gibsoni) Albatrosses
The lone Black-browed Albatross Albatross was young bird but the development of the central whitening of the underwing suggests it is not a juvenile bird. This species breeds on some of the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand. Recent work has suggested that the Falkland Island breeding population of this species maybe a distinct taxon.
Black-browed Albatross - immature off Kaikoura
An hour and about 500 pictures later we pulled up the anchor and headed south for about 20 minutes. We were accompanied by quite the entourage. The Northern Giant Petrels stuck close to the boat and could be a bit menacing if you were say stuck out in a lifeboat.
Northern Giant Petrel -juvenile note all dark head
Northern Giant Petrels -note darker reddish tip to bill in all birds
Southern Giant Petrels do occur in Kaikoura but were not evident on this day. The Southern “white form” is very distinct but for the regular birds the best distinguishing feature is the bill tip which is a darker reddish color in the Northern and greenish color in the Southern. Older Southern Giant Petrels tend to have whie heads and dark bellies giving them a hooded look.
I was very pleased to note several Westland Petrels circling the boat. This Procellaria petrel only breeds in a small area of the west coast of the south island of New Zealand and is one of the Kaikoura specialties. It is distinguished from White-chinned Petrel by its dark-tipped bill and from the other New Zealand specialty Parkinson’s Petrel which is rare in Kaikoura is best differentiated by subtle differences in bill and structural morphology.
Westland Petrel showing dark-tipped bill
A very informative article on separating “Black” Petrels by Steve Howell was published in Vol. 52 of Birding and is available online with many great photographs.
White-chinned Petrel showing tiny “white-chin” and yellow-tipped bill
Westland Petrel- reduced black tip variant - see Howell’s article
I was just getting warmed up photo-wise when one of the members of our group Brad (the one who never gets seasick and thus declined preventive medication) became very seasick. I was considering the potential benefits of this in supplementing the regular chumming when someone mentioned the unthinkable-“maybe we should return to shore early”. I knew that whining or having a “hissy fit” would not be becoming especially with both of my daughters on board so I surrendered gracefully and we headed back to shore while I fantasized about having Brad walk the plank.
On the way back in I managed a few very poor pictures of the endemic Hutton’s Shearwaters which were common but seemingly not interested in the chum as well as a few Sooty Shearwaters.
Hutton’s Shearwaters off Kaikoura
Sooty Shearwater off Kaikoura
Of course I don’t want to forget about the Cape Petrels which were with us for most of our adventure. The Cape Petrel is divided into two subspecies the nominate- Daption capense capense that breeds in the Antarctic and on subantarctic islands south of the Antarctic Convergence and D.c.australe which breeds on the Chatham Islands and the subantarctic islands of New Zealand. The nominate subspecies has more extensive white on the upper parts and can often be differentiated at sea.
Cape Petrel likely D.c.australe off Kaikoura
We arrived back to shore and in a bit more than two hours I had taken more than 1000 pictures. It was a great experience and I look forward to returning this fall for a couple of more trips with Captain Melville and the Albatross Encounter crew. If you are in New Zealand this tour is not to be missed. The regular trips are run twice a day and are only 2 hours in length which works well for non-birders who will generally enjoy this short tour. Dusky Dolphins and other cetaceans are generally encountered as well. Other tours for tourists are also available and very popular as well if you have an urge to mingle with the local dolphins. Book ahead.
I wanted to acknowledge that much of the technical information in this report was taken from Onley & Scofields book, Albatrosses, Petrels & Shearwaters of the World. Most people reading this are likely quite familiar with this reference but if not it is certainly an essential resource for all those interested in seabirds.
I will close with some random pictures from various places in New Zealand.
Thanks for tuning in.
World Pelagic Birding Headquarters
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Australasian Gannet- Muriwai, NZ
Tui - Auckland, NZ
Variable Oystercatchers- Bland Bay, NZ
Kelp Gull, Bland Bay, NZ
Pied Shag- Russell, NZ
Pied Stilt- Bland Bay, NZ
Red-billed Gull, Bland Bay, NZ
Why did the Weka cross the road? Russell, NZ
Pukeko- Christchurch, NZ
Paradise Shelduck-female, Christchurch, NZ
Royal Spoonbills- Christchurch,NZ
Black-billed Gull, Queenston,NZ
Australasian Crested Grebes- Queenston, NZ
Banded Dotterel, Kaikoura,NZ
White-faced Heron- Russell, NZ
Wrybill- near Twizel, NZ
Brown Teal- near Helena Bay, NZ
Variable Oystercatcher-Bland Bay, NZ
New Zealand Pipit- Piha, NZ
New Zealand Dotterel- Helena Bay, NZ
Sunset on Bland Bay at Christmas, NZ- So long New Zealand!!